Issue 3

Gender and Sexuality in “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Many stereotypes exist that associate certain qualities with one gender or the other. Males are typically associated with advantages of strength and ruggedness, while women are more so associated with being delicate and vulnerable. These assumptions appear most prominently in certain film genres, one in particular being that of action and adventure films. The movie Mad Max: Fury Road is an exception to this classical pattern. By casting a female character in the lead role and also portraying females differently than in most action films, director George Miller breaks down many of the clichéd gender representations that often appear in action films. In this way, issues of gender and sexuality are addressed through aspects such as character placement, plot development and overall mis-en-scene, with costume design playing a large role.

In most action films, the female character relies heavily on the lead male protagonist.[1] However, this is not at all the case in Mad Max. Miller reverses these roles between males and females by instead placing a female character into the lead role. For the entirety of the film, Max (Tom Hardy) is portrayed to be dependent on Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) for both transportation and survival. There are many instances throughout the film where Max entrusts his life to Furiosa, such as the scene where these two characters are being chased by the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter) and his men. Max is attempting to shoot out the light in the Bullet Farmer’s vehicle, as to avoid being spotted. After taking and missing the first two shots, and with only one shot remaining, Max relies on Furiosa to shoot out the light. This is a prime example of how this film creates a new association of gender and power. With men typically being entrusted with tasks such as this, it would seem unusual for a woman to be able to take the difficult, long-range shot when a man was not successful in doing so. However, by Miller allowing Furiosa to successfully take this shot instead of Max, it portrays Furiosa as being more powerful and threatening.  Thus, contrary to the typical association between power and brutality with a male, these traits are instead associated with the female character Furiosa. In many action films, a female “damsel in distress” is rescued by a male hero. However, in Mad Max a fellow female character, Furiosa, comes to the aid of these females in need of rescue. By doing this, director George Miller is attempting to subvert the typical cliché of action film plots. These intentions by Miller are evident in the scene where we see Max, Furiosa and their posse returning to take over the citadel. With Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his men in pursuit, a heated battle ensues. With the women of the lost tribe now on board the war rig, these women, in addition to the wives, take a large part in defending both themselves and their companions. Instead of cowering in fear, being portrayed as weak and helpless–as many action films would have portrayed women in this situation–these women instead fight back ferociously.  By fighting back and taking part in the action, these female characters are again portrayed as being more threatening compared their male enemies.

The plot development of Mad Max is another aspect of the film that addresses these issues of gender and sexuality. Although throughout the film there are many interactions between male and female characters, there are never any sexual relationships developed between them. Despite characters often being in close proximity and in physical contact with each other, there are never any romantic interactions. Towards the end of the film when Furiosa’s lung is collapsing, Max punctures her lung in order to relieve the pressure and cradles her head in his arms as she winces in pain. At this moment the viewer almost expects these two characters to kiss. This is what we have learned to expect after having had experience from watching action films, since many action films at this point in the plot would have these two characters falling in love. However, contrary to our expectations, Max and Furiosa do not engage in any sort of romantic contact. Even in the very few final minutes of the film, when many action films would have the male and female characters falling in love and embarking onto a romantic journey, we do not see this in Mad Max. Instead, Max and Furiosa part ways without even so much as a formal goodbye. The only sentiment that we get from Max is a simple nod towards Furiosa, before he blends in into the crowd. By not allowing any romantic relationships between characters, Miller pushes any feelings of sexuality and romance out of the film. If instead Max and Furiosa had fallen in love at the end of the movie, it would have detracted from the threatening appearance that Furiosa has maintained throughout the entirety of the film. Engaging in a romantic relationship would have portrayed Furiosa as being dependent on Max. This dependence, as said before, would weaken Furiosa’s tough appearance depicting her as more vulnerable.

Female characters are often sexualized in action films.[2] A female heroine may be adorned in a tight, revealing dress or some other provocative form of clothing. This sexualization detracts from the female’s power, portraying her as more dependent on the male characters. In Mad Max, the majority of female characters are garnished in very concealing clothing, not allowing much to show. The costume design of this film has a significant effect on how the viewer perceives the female characters. Imperator Furiosa and also the women of the lost tribe are all dressed in tattered and dirty clothing that is bulky so as to not show their underlying figure. Many of the women have dirt and sand smeared on their faces from the fighting. The objective of this non-attractive appearance of the female characters helps to reduce the sexualization that often occurs in films of this genre. By instead dressing the female characters in unattractive clothing, they are not portrayed as some sexual object, but rather as a character that is brutal and capable of inflicting pain. An additional feature that lends itself to this is Furiosa’s missing arm. As it is, with her shaved head, tattered clothing and overall harsh appearance, the missing limb further adds to this effect. This shows that although she is hindered due to her missing appendage, Furiosa is still able to fend off and defeat her adversaries against overwhelming odds. These elements further portray her and also the other female characters in the film as a whole, as being threatening and dangerous. The only exception that we see in this trend of costume design is with the wives of Immortan Joe. The clean white robes that these women are dressed in portrays these characters from the start as being weaker and more dependent on Furiosa and Max for protection. However, even though these women are depicted as more vulnerable than the other female characters of the film, they are still given some agency to fight for themselves as they take part in defending the war rig. The revealing white robes portray these women more as a sexual object than as a viable adversary. Although portrayed in this way, the audience is shown that they are still able to independently fend for themselves. These plot elements portray these women as being more threatening, even though their costume design may initially give them a weak appearance. Therefore, the costume design of the female characters is a pivotal element that helps to address the issue of sexualized female characters in many action films.

Many aspects of this film give a different rendering to the female characters, setting Mad Max apart from other typical action films that often sexualize their female characters and depict them as vulnerable and weak. Director George Miller successfully addresses many of these issues of gender and sexuality that commonly show up in action films by presenting the female characters as more threatening and by depicting them as independent from their male counterparts. The film Mad Max: Fury Road creates new associations between gender and power, by often placing the female characters in power over the male characters throughout the film. These associations give a new meaning to the genre of action film, embarking on a new trend of giving female character more power in these types of film. In this way women are portrayed as independent agents, free to exercise their own will.

[1] Yvonne Tasker explores this idea in more detail in Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre, and the Action Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[2] This idea is explored in more depth in a study conducted by Dr. Stacey Smith of the Anneneberg School of Communication and Crystal Cook of The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. “Gender Stereotypes: An Analysis of Popular Films and TV.” 2008. Accessed April 6, 2016. http://seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/GDIGM_Gender_Stereotypes.pdf.